Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Power of Practice

It's interesting how much one can accomplish with effective practice of a skill. I recently read an article by Joshua Foer, an author who, as an experiment, decided to devote himself to improving his memory. Over the better part of a year, he trained his memory to memorize long lists of numbers, the order of a deck of cards, poetry, etc. By the end of his brief but intense training he was able to memorize the order of a deck of cards in 1 minute, 40 seconds at the USA Memory Championship (a United States record).

At one point in his training he hit a plateau and wasn't able to improve his times. He spoke to his memory trainer, a psycholigist named K. Anders Ericsson, and learned the following:

"[Ericsson] found that top achievers [in any skill] typically follow the same general pattern. They develop strategies for keeping out of the autonomous [plateau] stage by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented and getting immediate feedback on their performance. Amateur musicians, for example, tend to spend their practice time playing music, whereas pros tend to work through tedious exercises or focus on difficult parts of pieces. Similarly, the best ice skaters spend more of their practice time trying jumps that they land less often, while lesser skaters work more on jumps they’ve already mastered. In other words, regular practice simply isn't enough. To improve, we have to be constantly pushing ourselves beyond where we think our limits lie and then pay attention to how and why we fail."

Similarly, the way to get past the plateau we all reach with typing speed is to practice typing 10 - 20% faster than usual. By pushing yourself past "good enough" you'll make mistakes, learn to figure out what's slowing you down, and move past it.

It is remarkable that this author, with no particular aptitude for memorizing, using this intensive practice technique, became the US champion in less than a year. Practicing in this way is demanding and frustrating, and is not the way most of us practice. I wonder if some skills that we consider significantly based on innate talent (great skill at a musical instrument, solving math problems, learning languages, certain sports, juggling, creative writing, drawing, sense of humor) are more based on determined practice than we realize. If an average person can become a national memory champion in less than a year using this technique, it seems possible that most skills could be attained more quickly and more extensively than we realize.

Our minds are so incredibly plastic- so ready to tackle any challenge if forced to do so. Blind people can learn echolocation (blind man Ben Underwood can do remarkable things, such as play basketball. Armless people can do amazing things with their toes (i.e. play piano). Deaf people read lips. If you wear lenses that turn the world upside down, within a few days your brain turns the image upright. Oliver Sacks eloquently discusses this plasticity, and it's persistence into old age, in his article on the NYTimes website. Persistent challenge can be the key that unlocks the incredible potential of our brains.

What if intelligence (narrowly defined as problem solving ability, for instance as measured by IQ) is actually the product of something more basic, a long-standing determination to not give up when approaching problems? The repetitive challenges squarely faced thus sharpen the mind's problem-solving ability. My friend Luke recently told me his brother is raising their child using a new parenting concept in which you avoid telling a child how smart or intelligent she is. Instead you compliment her on her determination. By focusing a child's self-confidence on their determination rather than intelligence, when they come to a difficult problem they are more likely to keep working at it rather than get frustrated and stop.

There is something beautiful about honing the mind to accomplish seemingly unreachable goals. Such an accomplishment must bring with it a great sense of pride and meaning.